Don’t let Reed Birney’s slim figure fool you—he contains multitudes. One of New York’s finest working actors, Birney has lent his keen intelligence and sly nuance to a vast array of characters, including a befuddled Tony Blair in Stuff Happens, a grieving high school principal in Tigers Be Still, a lustful carpenter in Circle Mirror Transformation, and a dissolute journalist in Blasted. But he’s made a specialty of equivocal husbands, and he attempts another in Adam Bock’s A Small Fire, currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons. Birney plays John, a spouse who stands by as his wife endures a devastating and incurable disease. Just before an afternoon rehearsal, he stepped away from the sickbed for a chat with the Voice.
Your character suffered terribly in Blasted. I remember your anal rape particularly. How did you rehearse that and perform it every night?
Soho Rep asked me to do it, and I read through the play and I got to page three, where my character takes off all his clothes and says [to an unwilling woman], “Put your mouth on me.” I remember thinking, “I don’t think I can do this.” At the first reading we were all terrified, even the designers. But the trick was that I took my clothes off in rehearsal on the third day, and after that I felt like I could do anything.
Is that the most difficult role you’ve ever played?
Yes, physically. Though this part I’m playing now is psychologically very hard—maybe even harder than my part in Blasted.
What’s the most ridiculous line you’ve ever had to utter in a show?
Well, I got my Equity card doing two terrible soft-rock musicals for a children’s theater. One was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. One was Swiss Family Robinson, set in America—nothing Swiss about it. Nearly all of those lines were impossible.
What’s your oddest experience with an audience member?
When I was in Gemini, some girl came backstage, and she was sobbing uncontrollably and talking to all of us as if we were our characters. I was listed at the time, and she called me and I went to lunch with her, and she said, “I dream about being an actress. I practice making faces in the mirror. If I don’t become an actress, I’m going to join the Army.”
Which roles have you always longed to play but now doubt you ever will?
I never got to play a single one of my dream parts. I fantasized about Edmund in Long Day’s Journey, about Romeo. But the parts I’m playing now are so much better than any of the ones I dreamed of. And I much prefer working on new plays rather than tackling something 4,000 people have done.
You’re playing another conflicted husband. Do you have a favorite onstage wife?
I’m crazy about A Small Fire‘s Michele Pawk. To do the things we have to do in this play, I feel so lucky to have such a regular, down-to-earth partner. This is the first time I’ve had to do an onstage sex scene.
I see from your ring that you have an offstage wife. Has she seen the sex scene yet?
No, and she’s not sure she’s going to. I thought for half a second about having my 14-year-old son come see this, and then I thought better of it. Both my children want to be actors. But I’m hardly ever in anything they can come and see! It’s always, “Daddy’s in another grown-up play again.”